Backcountry Camping

Cotton Kills: How Wearing Wool Socks Can Save Your Life

Any diehard backpacker, mountaineer, backcountry hunter or military man will tell you that when it comes to venturing off the beaten path, you’ll go only as far as your feet can carry you. That is to say, what you’re wearing on your feet matters. This goes for boots, but even more so for socks. And when it comes to socks (as well as base layers), there is a time-honored, simple saying meant to keep youngsters and novices safe: cotton kills. This saying exists as a warning, stemming from a great number of hypothermic deaths in the woods. It doesn’t take much for wet cotton clothing to facilitate a person freezing to death. Here’s how.  

Cotton

In a functional sense, the original purpose of clothing is to protect you from the elements. One of the ways it does that, is by keeping you warm. Clothing makes you warm by keeping warm air close to your skin. When cotton gets wet, all of its air pockets fill with water. Folks who spend a lot of time hiking, climbing, or packing things in and out of the woods know what happens when you’re putting in work out there. You sweat. When you sweat, anything with cotton that is touching you, fills with sweat. Sweat is water. Combine that with rain or a damp environment, and you have a lot of water. Then, if the air around you is cold, you will be cold also. This is because your saturated cotton clothing is not able to insulate you anymore. It can’t keep warm air close to your body because all the space it had to do that with is now occupied by water.

Wool

Wool on the other hand, does not have this problem. First off, the outer layer of wool fibers is called epicuticle. It naturally repels water. Each fiber of wool can absorb up to 37% of its weight before it actually feels wet. It serves to pull water across a larger surface area, so that the water evaporates quickly. The crimp that comes along with wool fabric also creates dead air space, which creates insulation when wet. In working man’s terms, wool keep you warm even when it gets wet.

Socks for Survival

The importance of socks simply cannot be overstated. Even in urban situations that have nothing to do with venturing into the wild, socks are key. Socks help keep your feet dry, warm, and serve as a cushion between your feet and your choice of footwear. Not having proper socks when heading into the forest, is a severe mistake. It invites chaffing, blisters, and most importantly, wet feet. Wet feet amount to fungus and foot rot, the likes of which can become so painful that it can render a person unable to walk. Wet feet also lead to hypothermia, which kills quickly. You simply should not go into the woods without a pair of wool socks on your feet. You should also pack at least one extra pair of wool socks. This will keep you warm, dry, and able to hike out of whatever you’ve gotten yourself into.

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  • […] with wool as a fiber, for more information on that you can check out our “Cotton Kills” article here. But perhaps even more important than the wool socks on your feet are the wool socks in your pack. […]

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